An "immersive learning space" at St Hugh's Primary in Liverpool
The grand designs of recent new school building programmes are about to be over as the recession forces a shift from large-scale new builds to thrifty make-overs and the conversion of offices and factories.
That was the stark message from the annual conference of the British Council for School Environments held in Knowsley at the end of this week.
Experts predicted that, whoever wins the next election, the budget for the government's £45bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) capital programme - intended to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in England - will be cut.
That means there will be far fewer projects like the showcase City Academies or the borough-wide scheme in Knowsley where all 10 secondary schools have been turned into seven brand new Centres for Learning a a cost of £150m.
Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council, was one of several speakers to predict that capital funding would be squeezed, saying the BSF budget was "under great pressure" while the Primary Capital Programme "is an area that may be cut".
The chair of Ofsted, Zenna Atkins, also predicted that BSF would face "a big challenge in the future when very little money is around".
With population growth meaning increased demand for school capacity, particularly at primary level, this will put pressure on future school building programmes.
Profiting from conversions
There are also implications for the Conservative Party's plans to create 220,000 school places through the Swedish-style "free schools" model.
Indeed, the Conservatives will not support the current form of BSF and will seek cheaper ways of creating new school places.
According to Sunand Prasad, immediate past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, this means there will have to be greater emphasis on "re-using or converting existing buildings rather than on new buildings".
The conference heard that this is the way that many of Sweden's new "free schools" have been created.
The Swedish school company Kunskapsskolan has opened 32 schools in recent years, all of them in converted offices and factories.
Typically one of its new schools for 500 pupils will cost between £1m and £1.5m, compared to the £20m or more which is not unusual for an Academy.
Steve Bolingbroke, MD for Kunskapsskolan UK, told the conference that his company received no government funding to build its new "independent state schools", but was able to convert factories and offices into effective learning environments at relatively low cost, allowing it to make a profit of about 2% of turnover when operating its chain of schools.
'Magic of the space'
Closer to home, St Hugh's Primary School in Liverpool is another example of how modest spending can transform learning.
Its WOW! is an "immersive learning space" that has been created inside a mobile classroom for little more than £50,000.
It was given the name, an acronym for World of Wonder, by the pupils, who now have a space which brings learning to life by transporting them to outer space, a rainforest, an ocean, or a desert.
Created by two former theatre lighting designers, Ben Willetts and Cathy Cross, who now run 4D Creative in Manchester, the WOW! room works by using LED lighting, surround sound, and giant scale wall projection to create immersive environments related to whatever the children are studying.
When I visited it with a group of school architects, the magic of the space was apparent, particularly in contrast to its immediate inner-city surroundings.
According to head teacher, Collette Denby, it has "brought the curriculum to life" and is a particularly effective learning tool for the 75% of children at the school who do not speak English as their first language.
'Adequate will do'
Ms Denby says there was certainly an initial novelty factor, but there has also "definitely been an impact on the quality of the children's work".
The system is designed so teachers and pupils can create their own virtual environments and is used right across the curriculum, from science to history, geography and English.
If, as seems certain, the future for school building design will be characterised by thriftiness and make-do rather than the stunning new edifices, there is plenty of research to suggest it can still have a very positive effect on learning.
A review of existing studies on the impact of school design on pupils, conducted by Newcastle University, concluded that where inadequate or shabby buildings have been improved or replaced this has "a significant impact on health, student morale, and student performance".
However, it added that the same could not be said if the existing school buildings were already adequate. Citing one study, it said there was little real gain "when facilities go from the equivalent of a Ford to a Ferrari".
In Knowsley, where new buildings like the Halewood Centre for Learning are certainly at the Ferrari end of the scale, some of the real gains have come, nevertheless, from relatively inexpensive design ideas.
A key element of this 1200-pupil school is the way it is designed around several "home bases". These are the dedicated areas for different year groups.
Each is carpeted, with its own designated toilets and study rooms, as well as having a common area for meeting friends and tutors.
As the pupils told me it is "their area", where other year groups cannot enter. It is their exclusive space - a fact particularly appreciated by the young Year 7s.
The use of durable carpets and other absorbent materials has reduced noise levels. There are no long corridors to race down, no corners to hide in, and no hemmed-in staircases.
And, students and teachers agree, behaviour is much better than in the old building.
So the lesson for the future is that school design and architecture still has a big role to play in raising school standards, but that the days of the multi-million pound extravaganza school is about to be replaced by smaller-scale, innovative designs and conversions which have a direct impact on learning.
Mike Baker is an education writer and broadcaster.